Thursday, December 02, 2004

Walking past the library (again)

My walk to the office from the train station takes me past the Downtown L.A. Library. It is not uncommon to see individuals sitting on the benches or wandering the walkways outside its walls who seem to have a great deal of free time and an inconsistent bathing schedule. Except when there shooed away by Los Angeles’ finest aging, overweight officers so a film crew can shoot a scene for a commercial there.

Over the years I’ve seen quite a bit, from insistent down-on-their-luck souls just seeking spare change "for the bus" to bag ladies shuffling along with vacant eyes. I dare not suggest I’ve seen it all, and I don’t mean to sound jaded, but let's just say it takes some effort to show me something new in the arena (so to speak).

One recent morning as I approached the corner of 5th and Flower (the edge of the library grounds) I came upon an older man coming the other direction. He had no front teeth, and was dragging an empty shopping cart behind him. (Nothing novel about either of these elements of the situation). When I got within about eight feet of him, he looked more-or-less at me and muttered with as much of a scowl as one can muster without teeth: "Call 9-1-1… I'm gonna take out your legs with some 2x4s."

However, before any of this could come to anything, the light at the intersection turned green for me to cross, so I continued walking past him without breaking stride, nodding at him in vague acknowledgment, commenting to myself, "Well, fair enough."

Some people would have been alarmed at the moment of accost from a man with a tenuous grasp on reality, but I appreciated (at least theoretically) the warning; it’s not everyone who gives one the opportunity to summon emergency assistance before being attacked. Or being thusly threatened. I mean, it’s more than Ron Artest gave that first guy he punched in the Auburn Hills crowd (although whether most NBA players have any better grasp on reality is arguable).

I was not concerned, however, because not only was he not a professional basketball player, it was clear that he didn’t have any lumber in his cart with which he could follow through on his declaration (and even if he had, I felt reasonably comfortable with my ability to dodge his attempt to strike).

Besides, I bet he says that to all the boys. Reflecting back, I don’t even feel special.

Still, if I’d had any change in my pocket I might have given it to him—not so much out of pity or out of fear but for giving me something a little different. Heck, I pay a bunch of money for cable that I don’t watch that much; surely his gesture, though likely sincerely malicious (in his mind), was worth a small donation.

(Not what he really needs, of course, but that’s not the focus of this piece. Ahem. Okay, everyone who walks past numerous homeless people every day, please raise your hand. Now, keep your hand up if you would have helped him. No, I mean taken him your home and… Yes, that’s what I thought.)

To counter that, allow me to describe another recent encounter. This one occurred on the evening walk to the station, well after dark. That’s when only the (what we’ll call) the die-hard panhandlers are out; the heavy foot traffic in Downtown L.A. is in the middle of the day, before businesspeople have gotten into their BMWs and SUVs—sometimes in their BMW SUV—and returned to their communities (where the homeless are restricted to a couple guys outside 7-Eleven), so those still there in the evening are, in a manner of speaking, more committed to their craft than those who dwell there at midday.

There were two women walking in front of me and I’d already started moving to pass them when I discerned the figure on the corner on the other side of them was a panhandler. From my position and due to the poor light I couldn’t read the sign he held, although I imagine it involved a plea for help. I didn’t have any change in my pocket (you may be noticing a pattern), but I did glance at him, curled up the corners of my mouth and nodded in some acknowledgment of him being there, which is more than the ladies did (even though he had teeth and no shopping cart). The traffic signal was already green so I kept walking out into the crosswalk, but before I got too far I heard him say in a sincere tone, “Thank you for smiling.” He sounded like he genuinely appreciated simply not being ignored.

In the past I’d received many automatic “bless you” responses from those whose pleas I’d semi-apologetically declined, but being thanked for granting him the same treatment I’d give anyone else with whom I made eye contact did make me think about things differently. It was probably the case that most people not only didn’t give him anything but went out of their way to pretend he wasn’t there.

Whatever qualms I may have with straight-up giving such people money—or rather, qualms with the authenticity of their sob stories—I have no issue with regarding them as human beings. (That is, at least up until I catch them in obvious lies that undermine their pleas.)

This is where you’re hoping I say I turned on my heel and went back and gave him some money, or marched him to a restaurant and bought him food and talked to him. Well, I can say with absolute honesty if I see him again I’ll certainly be more inclined to at least pause and find some spare change. Even if it causes me to miss the train and have to wait 20 minutes for the next one.

Admit it: A few paragraphs back you thought me heartless. And at best you were only partially correct. So there.